California Is a Place is a website, a gallery and an innovative new concept in storytelling by filmmaker Drea Cooper and photographer Zackary Canepari. The site's growing collection of short films and mini-galleries shows Californian characters, not caricatures in a handful of beautifully photographed and expertly edited pieces, including Cannonball, which follows a group of skaters who have found Fresno’s foreclosures opening up a playground; Big Vinny, which features Alameda’s local celebrity used-car salesman as he ponders the lessons found in his now lost lot; Borderland, which presents the complicated reality of drug smuggling along the San Diego County side of the U.S.-Mexico border; and Scrapertown, which provides a voice for Oakland's Champ, issuing forth on the philosophy behind the scraper bike movement. I interviewed Canepari and Cooper over email to get an idea of how this project got started and where it's headed. Excerpts from the conversation follow.
SF360: How did the idea for California Is A Place come about?
Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari: It's just a sentence: 'California is a place.'
We had talked about working on a project together for a long time but we're never in the same place long enough to get something going. On a whim, we decided to drive down to Fresno for a few days and shoot the pool skaters from our film Cannonball. About three weeks later Drea sent the first draft of the edit. We were both super excited and immediately started discussing what we were going to do next and how these films would be presented. Nine months later, the site went live with our first four films.
SF360: Did this project partly come about from disappointment or frustration about how California is often depicted? If not, do you have particular films you feel got California wrong or got California right that have motivated your work?
Cooper and Canepari: Not exactly frustration, but we definitely had a feeling that the Midwest and the South were being depicted as places at the heart of storytelling in America, especially in the last two years, with the economy in free-fall. It just felt like a lot of attention was being paid to those areas and the West and California in particular was only being represented as a budget crisis or a political debate. There just wasn't anything intimate or personal about those representations. It all felt very 'newsy.' From the beginning, we wanted to look at subjects and issues that have value in the greater discussion but we wanted our individual characters to drive the stories. Once we locked in on the Fresno foreclosure/skater story, the foundation was there to find as many stories as we could.
SF360: How did you find out about Big Vinny and the Scraper Bike movement and get connected with each?
Cooper and Canepari: Both were totally random. We heard about Big Vinny from another used car salesman in Alameda. We had already been shooting a bunch of empty used-car lots in the area but we were still debating how the story was going to play out. We knew the empty lots were interesting for what they represented and, at one point, we were thinking about just creating a visual montage of the lots with a bit of text. Then Drea saw Big Vinny's name painted on the window of an abandoned office. Another used car salesmen still in business mentioned Big Vinny and said he was still unemployed and living with his mother. After a month of pleading phone calls and desperate text messages, Big Vinny gave us 45 minutes.
We learned about the scraper bikes as we were researching another story on medical marijuana. After spending the day visiting clinics all over Oakland and coming away with nothing but a heap of frustration and a handful of pamphlets, our marijuana story seemed to be hitting a dead end. While Zack was scanning some of the free reading material from our marijuana clinics, he saw a small piece about Michael Franti's annual Power to the Peaceful concert. One of the guests that year was the Scraper Bike Team. Once we got on YouTube and saw their video for 'scraperbikes' we started chasing them down.
SF360: The cinematography, the angles of many of the shots, and the lovely symmetry add a beauty to these pieces that I think is very much responsible for how engaging they are. Could you talk about shot selection a little bit? Big Vinny in particular has a lot of off-kilter shots.
Cooper and Canepari: Our project has always had a visual focus. That's why we like working together—we love to shoot. If you turn off the audio, the visuals will still drive and communicate the story. With both, they're even more textured and interesting. Most short documentaries out there have either great stories or great visuals. It's rare that they have both. I have no idea why that is. In longer form, you can get away with weak visuals as long as you have a super engaging story. But in short format, people won't waste their time, so we take a lot of care in shot selection and building a layered film that's immediately visually engaging.
For Big Vinny, like everything we shoot, there's a time for symmetry and there's a time for asymmetry or as you referred to it 'off kilter.' For us, we want every shot to count, every shot to communicate part of the story, a piece of information, a feeling, an idea, etc. There are times when it just feels more interesting to turn the camera to the side.
SF360: There are two connecting themes I see throughout the four videos up on your site at this point [more have been posted since]. One has to do with abandonment, in that each character is dealing with abandonment in some way, say an institution or livelihood. Big Vinny has lost his used-car dealership and working in that industry involves constant rejection. The guys along the border feel somewhat abandoned by the government if not their fellow countrymen. Bikes were, until recently, an abandoned form of transportation and kids in the inner-city can often feel abandoned by the powers-that-be. And the Fresno skaters are seeing homeowners abandon their city for various (more complicated than portrayed by the skaters) reasons, homeowners that themselves might have been abandoned in various ways. Along with that theme, each of the characters is engaging in their own DIY aesthetic. The skaters and scraper bike DIY philosophy is obvious, but the 'vigilante' aspect of Borderland and the improv of Big Vinny’s monologue are examples of making-do with what you have as well. Are these themes you see as well? What are the various threads that structure the selection of stories and frame how you edit the pieces together?
Cooper and Canepari: Our early themes and stories were very much driven by the times. We started this project last summer, just after the serious effects of the economy and joblessness were taking hold. Everywhere we turned, we saw it: foreclosures, empty car lots, issues on the border. We shot Cannonball, Big Vinny, then Borderland. A few months passed and we started talking about other stories. Along came Champ and the Scraper Bike Team and we thought, cool, someone making good out of a tough situation. We went for it.
It's funny because now we're following a couple of stories that have nothing to do with abandonment, and are really about cute and quirky people. Our criteria is pretty simple, find stories in California—sometimes we're looking to tell topical stories in unexpected ways (like having skaters tell part of the foreclosure story or a lone car salesmen reminisce about the good old days) and we're always keeping our eyes open for offbeat stories about places and people we're interested in.
SF360: I know this project is about California, but on a more micro-scale, what have you learned about the Bay Area from this project?
Cooper and Canepari: I suppose it's not that we've learned anything more about the Bay Area, but I think in traveling around the state and making these films, we've learned that you can find just about anything anywhere. Every place has something to say.
SF360: What other stories are on the horizon?
Cooper and Canepari: We've got a few stories that we are super excited about but it's too early in the developmental stages to divulge. We've got to maintain some of the mystery. However, we do have another film ready to go. Stay tuned.
Postscript: Honey Pie, about Matt McMullen’s Real Doll dolls, premiered after this interview took place. An unintentional companion piece to Hirokazu Kore-eda's Air Doll, the piece notes it is for "mature audiences only," but that is only because the short visually confirms that the dolls are indeed anatomically correct. This is another short where Cooper and Canepari’s ability to combine visuals, dialogue and music, the latter working off a carnival theme, makes an already intriguing story even more engaging. McMullen’s thoughts behind his art and the people who purchase it further underscores how California Is A Place refuses to follow the typical narrative formulas of the mainstream.
Check local listings for play time, as California is a Place hits KQED's Truly CA series October 17.
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